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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 December 2006, 11:55 GMT
From sci-fi to sci-fact
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Space: 1999... make that Space: Circa-2025

By Steve Tomkins

What do mobile phones, the internet and Nasa's announcement that it plans to build a moon base have in common? They were all foretold by science fiction.

The dawn of the new millennium almost six years ago was a big fat letdown on just about every count: the Millennium Bug that never bit, the River of Fire that fizzled instead of roared and, of course, the Millennium Dome.

But to sci-fi fans who had grown up with dreams inspired by Saturday morning screenings of Space: 1999, the disappointment was all the more palpable. Impressionable fans of the show had been led to believe that by the end of the century we'd be living on the Moon in cream flares.

1968's Year of the Sex Olympics (left); and a 2005 fashion show
Futuristic fashion comes to pass
Admittedly the flares were uncannily accurate, but on all other counts, a generation had been lied to.

What a thrill then, to hear that Moonbase Alpha is finally going ahead, 25 years behind schedule. Nasa is planning a permanent base on the Moon by the mid-2020s.

Science fiction has had a mixed record in predicting the present - or "the future" as they called it back then. Take "personal communications devices". These are an everyday standard in sci-fi, from Blake's Seven to Battlestar Gallactica, and today they're an everyday reality in the form of mobile phones.

But note what sci-fi didn't predict. Their devices were always on their wrists, like watches - no one realised we would need to hold them up to our ears so that no one else can hear. No one predicted how annoying they would be on the train. And you never get Captain Kirk saying, "I'll tell Scotty to beam us up... just as soon as I can get a signal." "Have you tried holding it really high up in the air, Captain?"

Unless you are a photon yourself and only want to go a very, very short distance, teleportation is unlikely to work for you
Talking of beaming up, teleportation is one area where science fiction is still light years ahead of us. The Tomorrow People could do it, as could Daleks.

Scientists have recently achieved the teleportation of photons, which have no mass, but unless you are a photon yourself and only want to go a very, very short distance, this transport system is unlikely to work for you in the foreseeable future.

Final frontier

Other means of transport foreseen by novelists have come to pass. Aircraft, moon-landings and submarines all appeared in fiction before they were fact, the latter two thanks to Jules Verne.

HG Wells described both fighter planes and bombers in When the Sleeper Awakes, four years before the Wright brothers' project got off the ground - one fantasy it might have been better to keep that way.

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Crater expectations: One day we could all be living like this
Interstellar travel, however, whether by light-speed spaceship, police box or AWOL moon base, is a toughie. Though it's a basic tenet of much sci-fi literature, we have to wait until someone comes up not so much with some new technology as some new physics. So no galactic federations or warp factors for a while yet.

In fact time travel might be more likely. A fantasy staple from Well's The Time Machine to Back to the Future, the science-fact writer Paul Davies argues it is feasible, by, for example, popping through wormholes in the space-time continuum.

He denies that you could change the past, because anything you do in the past will turn out to have already happened. So you could not kill your grandmother before she gave birth, but you could presumably become one of your own grandparents (I'm not recommending this).

Robots
Robots imagined and real, from Hitchhiker's Guide and from Honda
Telescreens are another sci-fi staple. Wells foretold portable TVs and video. In George Orwell's 1984 there is a telescreen in every home, because "Big Brother is watching you" - though as it turned out, it's we who are watching Big Brother.

Instant two-way video calling is also upon us, although once again the sci-fi seers mostly omitted to mention the headaches of screen pixilation.

Robots too are a reality, although far from commonplace. They make our cars, sweep our minefields, repair our space stations, although housework is still proving something of a blind spot.

Automaton

The other obvious difference is that few real robots are human-shaped, as so many onscreen ones have been - not least to allow actors to fit inside. To a real robot, legs are just something to fall over with.

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Walking on the Moon... that's just the start of it
In fact a number of Japanese companies have now produced humanoid robots, including Kokoro's disturbingly lifelike Actroid, which (who?) is apparently available to chair meetings, and Honda's ASIMO which can run at 6mph.

Lastly, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was an electronic book that tapped into a vast database of information, invaluable for its users, "though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate". You could hardly ask for a better prediction of the internet.

So although the millennium has not brought us the space age we were led to expect, we did at least get cyberspace. It will have to do for now.


Your comments

All we need now is for the government to set up Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation and we're living the dream!
Gary Wales, Fleet

You are very unfair to Star Trek. There are numerous occasions when the communicator signal is jammed, or can't get through, and many occasions also where a transporter signal can't get through. And what about Uhura's (bluetooth?) hearing aid to ensure conversations can't be heard? As for Verne, he only put a man in Lunar Orbit, it was Wells who wrote of "The First Men in the Moon"
Alex, Guildford

Regarding the section about Big Brother. BIG mistake. BB IS watching us (and not the converse as the article states) via CCTV (more in the UK than anywhere else on the planet) via RIPA (if you don't know what it is then FIND OUT NOW...it affects you ALL) and via e-mail content checking (see RIPA). We are beginning the slippery slope of giving away our rights to the State because of our fear of Teenage Yobs. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED ONCE AGAIN...
John Crichton, Swindon

The odd thing about some of these "predictions" was they were nothing of the kind originally. Teleporting was used in Star Trek because the producers realised that the special effects needed to fly a ship model from space to planets would blow the budget. Equally, Dr Who's Tardis has remained a Police Call Box because the plan to have a new external form for every story would have blown the BBC's budget. The first story required a call box and that is how it stayed. But these banal accounting decisions have almost taken on a quasi-religious truth for Sci-Fi fans. The real problem is with science fact which has turned to fiction. What happened to all those safe clean nuclear fusion reactior the physicists promised us 50 years ago ? Still always the elusive 30 years away. And now we really do need them
Des, Surrey, UK

If mankind is ever to venture into space on any serious level it must be a joint venture between the major parties such as the US, Europe, China Japan and Russia. No one nation has the right to claim space for its own ends as that will only lead to further problems. To this end would it not be better for there to be a single multi-national space force than 10 comptinting ones.
Adam, morecambe

The thing is with Sci-Fi (or the writer), is that it sees the Earth as one race, one nation. Not as a mixed bag of fuedal races / nations. So instead of wasting billions of dollars fighting each other, and protecting our selves from our neighbours, we could have developed the technology to match Sci-fi, or come closer to it.
Palu, London

Ahh, the good old communicator, Spok's little bits of coloured plastic that have a remarkable similarity to a box of multi-couloured floppy discs i bought a few weeks ago. I even have 'Don't Panic' in big friendly letters on the back of my PDA Sci-Fi fact is every where these days i just love going back to my sci-fi book collection and try to work out whats next...
Stu, Braintree, UK

"In George Orwell's 1984 there is a telescreen in every home, because "Big Brother is watching you" - though as it turned out, it's we who are watching Big Brother." Well, that's what they want you to think...
Someone, The most surveyed country in the world

Yes, but where are the jet-packs, that's what we're all waiting for. Commuting will be so much more fun!
Robin Hemmings, London, UK

In light of the conversation of Science Fiction to Science Fact,would the droogs in a Clockwork Orange now be given ASBO's?
Kolin Edwood Barnz, Wandsworth

I feel space exploration is great, as is our amazing progress in science and technology, but erecting a facility on the moon is quite simply mad. It is playing with fire. Consider the incredible dependence of life on earth on the moon. The moon is responsible for the stability of this amazing planet. Suppose there is some accident on this facility or perhaps a mistake during construction that results in damaging the fragile satellite. That could destroy the stability of our planet. As if the American governemt isn't doing enough to contribute to our potential doom with their militarism, nuclear weapons and horrible record on climate, now they want to mess around with the moon. What is wrong with these people?
Elliot, Kingston

The article says that time travel could be more likely than interstellar travel. In fact we can already do interstellar travel - the Pioneer and Vogager space probes are already on their way to the stars. There is one small problem - the travel time is measured in many 1000s of years. Improvements in rocket technology (e.g. use of nuclear engines) could cut this quite considerably (to a few years, for the nearest stars) without requiring 'new physics'. However, there is no currently no way of opening 'space time wormholes' to support time travel - they are just theoretical predictions, and haven't actually been observed.
John Kent, Christchurch, UK

I'm one of the generation that grew up watching Star Trek and Space:1999. It might be better described as a case of the future delayed rather than cancelled as I have no real doubt that much of what is now fiction will eventually become fact. Interstellar travel is possible, just incredibly slow (and astronomically expensive - pun intended) at the moment! One day we will come across a means of faster travel although I don't know if we will ever be able to jump through a Stargate or fly through hyperspace. As for what this promised spaceborne future meant for me as a kid, it made me dream of spaceships and ultimately took me to a career in the Space industry that I will always enjoy. We need to encourage the children in our schools and kindergartens to dream too.
Gareth Williams, Darmstadt, Germany

As a lifelong fan of Sci-Fi, I have embraced many of the new gadgets and toys imagined in the fictions of the past. And even fear one or two of the less pleasant imaginings... But of all the promises made and predictions of the future (from HG Wells to Tomorrows World), it is the flying car which i most covet...
Dan Gurden, Basingstoke

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